As the opening credits roll, old black and white newsreel footage from what looks like the 50s and early 60s flashes by of men being rounded up (and roughed up) by the police. Newspaper headlines break up the footage, announcing police raids of gay bars: "Crackdown of Homosexual Bars", "Men Charged in Taverns", etc. The men are all very well-dressed, clean-cut, and incredibly embarrassed, holding their hands over their faces, some with their suit coats over their heads. They are loaded up into paddy wagons as police push and shove them, snickering. Some of the men sit in large rooms, awaiting questioning and photographic, looking like their whole lives have just been destroyed.
The narration of this film is carried out by Harvey Milk speaking into a tape recorded in 1978, dictating a letter to be read (or in this case, listened to) only in the event of his assassination. As he narrates, we catch glimpses of Milk in front of various groups, giving speeches, using attention-getting opening lines that vary with every crowd. In front of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT) crowds, he opens with "My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you." In front of burly straight union workers, he opts for, "My name is Harvey Milk, and sorry I am not what you expected, but I left my high heels at home".
In narration, Milk explains gay activists are targets for being so visible. There's a sudden newsreel clip of what looks like actual footage of a very young Diane Fienstein making the announcement both Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated (NOTE: for the unaware, that's California's current Senator Diane Fienstein, who in 1978 was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who became Mayor upon Moscone's assassination, and later, of course, United States Senator).
Milk, narrating his "Only Read If I Am Assassinated Letter" frames the rest of the movie, taking the audience to important points chronologically, beginning in 1970 New York.
Milk, dapper in a very Sears & Roebuck 70s gray suit catches the eye of a curly-haired Scott Smith (James Franco), many years his junior on the steps of a New York subway station. Furtively, Milk makes sure no one's around, watching, when he suddenly has a "meet cute" moment and forwardly tells the young man in front of him, "My name is Harvey Milk", and starts in on a lengthy talk about his birthday happening tomorrow and how he just moved to the city and doesn't know anyone and how he doesn't want to spend his birthday by himself and all the while he and Smith seem magnetically drawn to one another, inching closer and closer, until they kiss, just after Smith insists he doesn't date guys over 40 and Milk checks his watch before saying, "Well, today's my lucky day, because I'm 39 until 12:01 tonight".
The pair end up at Harvey's apartment, listening to music and drinking orange juice. That leads to the bedroom, where Milk and Smith lay together, shirtless, talking about gay life in NYC at the time. Milk cautions Smith he should never pick up guys in the subway because they could secretly be police (who apparently spent much of their time harassing homosexuals in bait and trap operations like that). Milk says in this town, many men had to be discreet or lose their jobs. He tells Smith he will show him safe places to cruise, before asking Smith where he's from (Jackson, Mississippi). The two eat birthday cake in bed and Milk sighs a little before admitting he's turned 40 with not a single thing he's proud of to his name. Smith tells him not to eat too much cake or he will be fat and 40 too.
The film flash-forwards a little and "meet cute" turns into a relationship for Milk and Smith, with the formerly business-like Milk growing his hair long and sporting a scraggly beard. Smith gets a little mustache with a short Jack Tripper style haircut. The two drive cross country with a home movie camera, aping it up for each other, having a great time.
Milk narrates by 1972, Haight & Ashbury was unrecognizable from the "glory days" of the hippie era and was not infested with drugs and drug dealers, most of the shops and homes boarded up. Refugees from Haight went to the Castro, where gay men from around the country also started to go a formerly solid Irish-Catholic neighborhood in the Eureka Valley part of The City. Milk takes lots of photos of the neighborhood, including shots of an empty storefront on Market Street.
Milk and Smith live together in a small apartment in the Castro, with Smith having cashed his last unemployment check and wondering what he's going to do next. Milk doesn't want him to have to do anything, and wants to take care of them both. He takes some candid shots of Smith and gets the idea to open a camera shop in the empty storefront in their building (the one he took shots of before). Milk and Smith make a wooden sign for "Castro Camera" and hang it in their new shop window as the proprietor of the liquor store across the street walks over to "welcome" them to the neighborhood.
Milk and Smith kiss openly, excited to be in business, and the neighbor makes his displeasure known. Milk says they are opening their business and asked how they could become members of the Eureka Valley Merchant's Association. The neighbor tells them they can't become members because if they open their shop, the police will close them down. Milk says it's not against the law to open a business, and the neighbor says "There are man's laws, and there is God's law", and storms across the street back to his liquor store making it clear gay men aren't welcome in the Castro.
Well, Milk and Smith open the camera shop anyway. Back in their apartment some time later, on Smith's birthday, Milk's setting the table for an elaborate, fancy dinner, talking about how the camera shop is a way to start gay activism. He sees it as a way to start organizing, because so many people come to the shop who are gay and support him because it's a gay owned shop. Milk gets the idea to keep lists of gay owned shops, or shops friendly to gays, with another list for the "bad" shops which don't support gays and tell everyone to only patronize the "good" businesses. Then, Milk reasons, gays could take over a block at a time, driving out the bad shops, and eventually take over whole streets and neighborhoods, and then the entire Castro, to start a movement. Smith asks, "What's with all the activism. I thought you were a Republican," and Milk tells him to come into the dining room for a birthday surprise. Smith sees the fancy dinner and is touched, and then Milk smacks him in the face with a whip cream pie and then runs into the bedroom screaming SANCTUARY! Smith follows him in there and they forget all about dinner.
Milk narrates the Castro became Gay Destination #1 soon after, with the police continuing to hate the LGBT community and vice versa. The list of approved gay-friendly businesses had its desired impact as gay-hating shops failed left and right. The liquor store owner from earlier in the film had a business related change of heart when he realized gay men spend lots of money on liquor, and his shop filled up with throngs of bare-chested guys. Milk asked the man if he still had a problem with homosexuals now that his business was doing so well, and then laughed his way out of the man's store, because that liquor store made the "good list" for coming around and supporting the LGBT community.
Milk talks about some of the men who started coming around the camera shop to hang out and become involved in gay activism in this period. Danny Nicolletta, an art student, who loves opera. Jim Revaldo, a Harvard grad, though no one cared about that. Dick Pavitch, Dennis Perone, and others. All young guys who gravitated to Milk, some of whom Milk was interested in sexually, even though he was with Smith.
The first test of Milk's activist muscle was the Coors Beer Boycott, where union leaders couldn't get Coors to crack and cave into union demands. Milk said he would help knock Coors off the #1 spot in terms of sales in San Francisco, and got the gay community to stop buying Coors products. As soon as Coors slipped from #1, the company buckled to the union, and Milk demanded in return the union start hiring gay drivers. For this success, Milk became known as The Mayor of Castro Street (which he admits he coined himself).
The tension between the LGBT community and the police broke into bouts of random police raids on bars, where they'd storm in (badges covered to hide their identities) and haul men out of the bars and beat them in the streets. Once the guys were on the street, the police would arrest them for "blocking traffic". Guys would hide in the bathrooms when the police raided the bars so they wouldn't be pulled into the street and beaten.
Milk reasoned if the LGBT community had someone in government to look after its interests the same way black people had community leaders looking out for them, then this sort of thing wouldn't happen anymore. He stood up and said "I'm here, so I'm going to get attention".
The movie's in 1973 now, and it's still not safe for the LGBT community in the Castro. Men have organized and wear whistles when they go out. If anyone heard a whistle blowing, that was the signal to come running and help whoever was in trouble. There's a great shot of a whistle on the street in a pool of blood, laying where a dying gay man left it. In the shiny reflection of the whistle, you can see Milk talking to a police officer. The cop is dismissive of the gay man's death, calling him a prostitute who was killed by his trick. Milk explained, no, this man was with his lover and he was not a prostitute, and was walking home as a couple when they were attacked. The cop has an "Oh, well" attitude about the whole thing that's disturbing. Milk picks up the whistle and pockets it, more determined than ever to do something and stop all this violence.
Literally, Milk gets a soapbox to stand on (painted SOAP on one side) and a megaphone and takes position on a street corner to demand change. A small crowd gathers and Milk says, "My fellow degenerates" to get everyone's attention, before saying the police need to stop covering their badges when they attack gay bars and need to be held accountable, since taxes should go to protection not persecution. Milk announced his candidacy for City Supervisor on that corner. He then launches into a number of campaign stops, hitting barber shops, street corners, and anywhere there's a group of people assembled, campaigning to become the first openly gay man elected to office in the United States (and possibly the world).
While campaigning, Milk meets young Cleve Jones, who appears to be a male prostitute, hanging around with a group of other prostitutes. Milk's attracted to him, and keeps trying to get the kid to come closer and talk, but Jones says he's moving to Spain in a week and doesn't have time to get involved, in politics or other things. Milk asks him where he's from, and Jones says "Phoenix", so Milk next asks what do they do to gay boys in gym class in Phoenix, and Jones says he always faked illness to get out of gym. Milk says they can change Phoenix, but they have to start with this street in San Francisco. Milk sees Jones is a smart-ass, and tells him that he should always do what he does best, but if he's going to be a prick, be a prick for a good cause.
Milk knows he needs a major endorsement to win Supervisor, and also understands all the big money gays only support established politicians like Diane Feinstein, who already has all the money she needs. So, he begins a strategy to get a big endorsement of his own. He's distracted, however, by the death threats he's starting to receive, including one made in crazy-cartoon-crayon-drawing form: a stick figure of Milk being hit by knives and bombs with blood squirting out of his eyes and groin. Smith shows this to him and is scared, but Milk thinks it's funny and puts it up on his fridge. Smith says Milk needs to back down and go back to running just the camera shop, but Milk says putting that drawing in a drawer makes it powerful, but putting out in the open makes it harmless, so he can see it every day and not be afraid of it. Smith also says between these people who hate him and the fact he has no endorsements or money means he won't win the race. Milk says this is not about him winning the race, but about him standing up and daring to run and not backing down.
Milk and Smith go to David Goodwin's house, the owner of The Advocate, to get the high profile endorsement he needs. Because it's hot, there's a pool, and he's played by James Franco, Smith strips naked and swims naked in blue water. He then climbs out of the pool and joins Milk, Goodwin, and Goodwin's lover at a business meeting, stark naked. Goodwin says he only uses his money and influence to help gay causes in quiet ways. He tells Milk that Supervisor is a city-wide office (meaning Milk needs the support of the entire city, not just his one area, making it harder for a gay man to win office if the only people who like him are those in the Castro). Milk says he wants The Advocate's endorsement and Goodwin says no. Milk and Smith leave, as Smith says goodbye by apologizing for peeing in the pool.
Milk lost that first race for Supervisor.
In 1975, he tries again. This time, he loses the beard and long hair and goes back to that insurance salesman look he had in New York in 1970 when the audience first met him. Milk chalks his first loss up to the fact he looked too radical for people in the whole of San Francisco to vote for him, so he needed to tone his look down. He also tells Smith he needs to rein things in too, and to stop going to bathhouses. Smith doesn't like that part.
Milk lost that 1975 race too, but got closer to winning than ever. This is the mantra of their campaigns from then on: We got more votes than last time, and next time we'll get more than that, even if we don't win!
In 1976, Milk decides to run for an office higher than City Supervisor, and tries for Assemblyman at the state level. The Machine candidate is Agnos, and Milk's up against big odds because the City Machine is powerful. After debating Agnos, the two candidates leave the building together and Agnos gives Milk some good advice: "Your rap is a downer. What are you for? You only talk about what you are against, and you don't give voters a reason or any optimism to vote for you. If you don't give them hope, you are cooked."
Milk's campaign activities have taken over his entire life. His apartment is filled with people, and Scott is frustrated because he does not like politics, and does not want it taking over his entire life (despite Scott being Milk's campaign manager). Scott has dinner ready and has to physically throw people out of the apartment so he and Milk can eat. He tells Milk that he wants to talk about politics at the dinner table and Milk starts to talk, Smith starts to get angry, but Milk goes into a sweet, soft voice and says, "I only wanted to tell you that this is the most delicious dinner I have ever had", and Smith smiles. They laugh, but Smith makes it clear he doesn't want any more campaigns after this. He wants a normal life without dozens of people in the apartment.
Milk walks down Market Street late at night on the eve of the Assemblyman's election and a car pulls up behind him. Someone gets out, and starts following behind Milk, who gets nervous and walks faster. Milk's scared someone's trying to kill him and makes it to his apartment building, finding Cleve Jones there waiting. The man following Milk walks past them: he meant Milk no harm after all. Jones has nowhere to go, so Milk lets him stay with him that night.
Jones broke up with a boy, and ran out of money in Spain, so he came back. Milk counsels Jones on relationships, telling him you don't realize who the love of your life is until the end of your life, and then you look back on all the men you've been with and can see who were just friends and who was the one true love you ever had. But you only understand that at the end, and should have fun racking up good suspects through the years so you have that to look back on (this is called foreshadowing).
Jones talks about a gay march in Spain to remember the gays who were killed under Franco's dictatorship, only recently ended with the restoration of King Juan Carlos and the constitutional monarchy. At the march in Barcelona, Jones saw drag queens attacked with rubber bullets, gushing blood, who refused to back down, and refused to give up or give in. Blood ran in rivers through the gutters, but Jones said the gays there in Spain kept marching.
Milk says the LGBT community in San Francisco could have a revolution here in California too, but guys can't use the Castro just to cruise for sex anymore. They needed to stand up and stand for something. Milk asks Jones if he can assemble 1000 people in an hour, if he's ready to be an activist. Jones is cocksure and confident and says he can do anything, and someday Milk will be working for him. Milk says, for a start, they should go hit the bus stops together as polls will open in just a few hours.
Coloring the race is the omnipresence of Anita Bryant, the first personifiable villain in the film. Bryant was a singer turned spokesperson for Florida orange juice who was a leader in the Christian political activist movement in the 1970s. She became an LGBT boogeyman by devoting herself to a crusade to overturn gay-friendly referendums and resolutions across the country, starting in Dade County, Florida where she was most famous for her orange juice commercials. The Dade County gay protection law required the government to enforce non-discrimination policies for all gay employees, but Bryant said gays should be treated like prostitutes, thieves, and other deviants and should get no such protection under the law. She also said homosexuality should be criminalized and made punishable like other offenses. Her appearances via local and national news footage pop up in the film from this point on out, as Bryant's crusade succeeds in Dade County and spreads nationwide.
Milk loses the Assemblyman's race, but wins more votes than he's ever won before. One of his campaign staff holds a map of the election region, showing how well Milk did, comparatively, and telling him if the City's new Supervisor election plan passes, Milk's district would include only the Haight Ashbury and Castro neighborhoods, meaning Milk would only need to win "hippies and gays" to be a Supervisor when the next elections were held. Milk's exhausted and knows Smith doesn't want to run another race. He's torn between wanting to become the first openly gay man to win elected office, and wanting to keep his relationship with Smith and also have a normal life.
Walter Cronkite makes the first of several appearances here, reporting news Bryant's anti-gay crusade is making strides across the country. As Milk and his supporters watch the news, one of them wears a tee shirt saying "Anita the Hun". Bryant says, after more gay-friendly legislation is shot down, "Tonight the laws of God and cultural laws of man were vindicated" and launches into a religious themed rationale for doing what she did.
A boy in Minnesota calls Milk and tells him he wants to kill himself because his parents told him they were shipping him off to a hospital in the morning to cure him of homosexuality. The boy is in a wheelchair so he can't just get on a bus and run away, and would rather die than go into an ex-gay forced rehabilitation program. Milk tells him he needs to get away from home and get help, but the boy's mother catches him on the phone and makes him hang up before Milk can say anymore to help him. At that moment, Milk's team tells him there is going to be a riot outside if he does not stop it.
Smith's upset Milk's getting drawn into the riot and you can see on his face he's had about enough of being spouse to a politician/activist. Milk takes his bullhorn, given to him long ago by union members, and organizes and impromptu peaceful march through the streets of San Francisco to City Hall. The police allow him to do this, since getting the people to march and scream and yell in the street prevented the riot. The crowd shouts "Gay Rights Now!".
At City Hall, Milk climbs the steps and tells the crowd, "My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you". He tells the crowd they will fight Anita Bryant wherever she goes, and she did not win by striking down gay legislation that night. No, Bryant really lost that night because she mobilized all of these people against her and now they are all together, they would fight and defeat the villainous Anita Bryant.
Milk says young people in Jackson, Mississippi, in Minnesota, and in Woodmere, New York (where Smith, the boy on the phone, and Milk himself are all from), are all looking to San Francisco and this march tonight for leadership. The LGBT community had to give these young people hope, for a better world tomorrow, for workers in unions who were awakening to the fact the American dream is slipping away from them as jobs left the country, and that now San Francisco has changed its rules, people in neighborhoods actually have the chance to pick the people who best represent them. This should give them all hope.
The rule changes now made Milk a viable candidate for winning the Supervisor seat representing the Castrowhile in another part of town nearby, Dan White, former cop and fireman, was poised to represent the still heavily Irish-Catholic neighborhood in which he lives. Enter the second personifiable villain in the film: Dan White.
It's 1977 now, and Smith moves out and leaves Milk because he can't take another race for Supervisor. He also resigns as Milk's campaign manager. Milk has a hard time losing Smith, and drags his feet telling his staff he's gone. All the Assemblyman signs get junked from the office and Milk has new Supervisor signs printed up. The new campaign manager is a lesbian named Ann Kronenberg, who the all gay male staff react poorly to. Everyone's in a bad mood because another gay man is also running for Supervisor, named Rick Stokes, and this guy is backed by The Advocate. Gloom and doom pervades the room, with Eeyores everywhere telling Milk he won't win. Not Kronenberg, though. She tells Milk she'll get him the endorsement of the San Francisco Chronicle. The gay men on staff don't like Kronenberg because, "not only is she a woman, but she's a woman who likes other women, which is doubly worse". It's a funny scene, reminiscent of the "Our Gang" He-Man Women Haters' Club with Alfalfa and Spanky and the others not wanting Darla to play as well. Milk tells the rest of the boys they need "a tough dyke to get things done".
Kronenberg soon delivers not only The Chronicle's endorsement, but The Sentinel and the Bay Area Reporter's endorsements as well. All the papers say they endorses Milk because he is a good businessman, which makes his staff laugh (because the camera shop is a big joke). The staff all decide to head out to The Stud to celebrate, but Milk wants to stay in and read the papers. A few guys pass by the window and ask, "Gonna win this time Milk?", and a very drunk Latino man tries to come into the shop. Milk likes him, and the guy trips over onto the ground, talking about Palomino horses and asking if Milk is the stallion he has been looking for. The guy's name is Jack, and he is quite obviously crazy, but Milk misses Smith so this is rebound guy for him. Of course, Milk takes him upstairs and they have sex naked. Jack's father used to beat him and kicked him out of the house, and Milk tells him no one will ever beat him again, as Milk won't let them.
It's now November 1977 and Milk's coalition of support is union members, women, seniors, and gays. He wins Supervisor, becoming quite possibly the first openly gay man to win election to office in world history. They have a giant celebration at Milk's office, which Smith watches from the outside, as he has chosen to no longer be part of Milk's group. The Advocate's owner tries to crash the party and join up with the winner, but Milk tells him the building's too crowded, before yanking Jack out of the crowd outside and bringing him into the party. None of the staff likes Jack, who is still very obviously crazy. The news media is inside and ask Milk if gays are taking over San Francisco and Milk says he was elected to serve all the people and that is what he will do.
In 1978, Milk is sworn in by the Mayor at City Hall. Smith watches the swearing in on TV. Milk goes to City Hall, with Cleve Jones in tow, and chastises Jones for wearing a suit and trying to blend in with the bureaucrats. Milk tells him to keep wearing his tight jeans and to never take the elevator, instead always taking the stairs because then he can make a flamboyant entrance wherever he goes, giving everyone a big show in his tight jeans. Milk also says he wants to set a trap for Anita Bryant by coming up with a citywide ordinance protecting gays in San Francisco just like the ones she keeps shooting down across the country, to get Bryant to bring her fight to San Francisco.
Dan White, also elected Supervisor, invites Milk to his son's baptism, and Milk accepts. His staff is stunned, but Milk says he needs allies and he thinks Dan White could be one of them. Jones asks, "Is it just me, or is he cute?" after White left the office. For the record, it's not just Jones. James Brolin as Dan White is indeed cute.
Milk returns home to find Jack broke into his apartment, watched soap operas all day, and cooked a large meal of brown, gross things for Milk to eat. Milk asks if he gives Jack a key, would Jack promise not to break in any more. Jack agrees, and Milk starts a relationship with this crazy person who moves in with him.
Milk then goes to Dan White's baby's service, where he and White discuss exchanging votes: White will vote for Milk's pro-gay ordinance if Milk will support White's plan to keep a psychiatric hospital out of his district. This becomes a point of contention later, as Milk will claim he never made this promise to White, but White will insist that's what they agreed at the baptism. White says they will indeed "watch out for each other", and White's wife interrupts with a little impolite bigotry, so Milk spars with her for a while politely as the baby chooses that moment to cry.
Milk's staff tells him he can't be allies with White, but Milk says no one else likes him and he thinks White might be gay too, living a pretend life, because that's what Milk himself did back in New York. The staff also don't like Jack, because he is crazy, and say Milk's gone and made this crazy person First Lady.
Anita Bryant has an ally in California named Briggs, who is a state senator pushing legislation in California called Proposition 6, which will require the state to fire all gay teachers, and all teachers who support gay rights. It would provide for inquisition and witch hunt powers to arbitrarily determine who was or was not gay, "just by looking at them". The illogic in all of this is gay people would cease to exist eventually if teachers were not allowed to recruit new gays, as people are not born gay but learn to be gay from their teachers. Milk and his staff know in Briggs, the Bryant fight has now come to California.
Briggs plans on rooting out "all the perverts and pedophiles in public schools". Briggs says people like Milk can argue with him all they want, but they can't argue with God. Bryant and Briggs develop a shopping list, according to Milk, of people they want to go after because they are going to Hell: start with gays, then hit Jews and Muslims next.
At another political event, where important people are gathered to strategize in the fight against Prop 6, Jack's there and has hidden in the closet, having a crazy episode. Milk tries to calm Jack down, but Jack's upset Milk was 20 minutes late to this event, and Jack didn't know anyone downstairs, so he ran upstairs to hide in the closet and wants to live in there now. Milk tries to calm Jack down and get him to leave the closet, but Jack starts screaming and yelling like, well, the crazy person that he is. So, Milk goes downstairs to rejoin the business meeting already in progress.
It's been decided by the leading, rich gays the best way to fight Prop-6 is to say it is an affront to human rights and never mention gays at all. Just claim it violates basic human rights. Milk says that is the wrong approach, and they need flaming old queens (his words) in all the brochures so people can see who exactly is being affected by this, since everyone knows a gay person, whether they realize it or not, and if people see folks they know in these anti Prop-6 ads, they won't vote to discriminate against them.
Milk decides to rally his own troops, as he thinks the gay elite's approach is stupid. Milk's team gathers, and Milk challenges all of them to come out of the closet to everyone they know, and gets one of his staff to call his father right there on the spot and come out. Smith's there, and remembers how Milk himself never came out to his family and was always so secretive about being gay, so he thinks it's hypocritical of Milk to ask all these young people to come out to their family and friends. Milk insists if everyone in California realized how many gays were in their lives, hey would not vote for Prop-6, so they had to stand up and leave the gay ghetto to get their attention. Privacy is the enemy. If you want real political power, start telling the truth. Milk insists people will vote 2:1 against Prop-6 if they realized gays they knew and loved would be affected by it.
Milk clearly misses Smith. He asks Smith how he is, and Smith says he is dating someone. Smith asks why Milk is with a crazy person, and Milk says Jack needs him. Jack's acting more crazy than usual and is incredibly jealous of Smith.
White is upset with Milk because he realizes Milk's voting to allow that psychiatric hospital in White's district. Milk claims he never promised to vote against the hospital, even though it seemed like he agreed to swap votes with White at that baptism. White loses it and goes a little unhinged because he says everyone is counting on him to keep that hospital out of his district and he feels Milk has betrayed him. White is furious and tells Milk that he had his chance to be a friend and ally of White's, and he blew it.
Cronkite comes on the news again, informing us Bryant's been busy, with victories against gay rights in Minnesota and Oregon. Bryant's taken her show on the road, and is now moving on to Wichita, Kansas. Milk starts a Round Robin telephone call to gather every LGBT person and supporter he can find and get them to demonstrate against the Wichita, Kansas Anita Bryant Hatefest.
At the rally that forms in the Castro, Milk passes the megaphone to Jones and tells him to lead the angry mob on a march to City Hall, where Milk will wait and then come out and take the position as City Peacemaker to quiet the mob down. Jones uses the megaphone to rally the crowd to march, then uses bulky walkie talkies to communicate with other Milk staff in the crowd. The crowd disconnects the streetcars' electrical plugs to block traffic on the intersections too, bringing a good portion of San Francisco to a standstill as they march to City Hall. They shout, "Civil Rights or Civil War, Gay Rights Now!" and "Anita, You Liar. We'll Set Your Hair On Fire".
Milk's stunt is a success. He's hailed as a City Mediator/Peacemaker who stopped a near-riot. At this point, he realizes to build support for his pro-gay legislation, he needs people to see him as accomplishing something besides gay-related efforts, so he decides to sponsor legislation requiring people to clean up after their dogs, since dog feces are a health hazard and nuisance. A populist effort like this could help rally people to support his efforts against Prop-6. Milk, of course, makes a big show out of how gross dog droppings can be in the park when stepped on, and the media eats up his flamboyance.
The Gay Rights Ordinance passes in City Hall, 10 Yes and 1 No with the lone No coming from Dan White.
Milk then goes to talk to White after the vote. White asks, "Can two men reproduce?", to which Milk responds, "No, but God knows we keep trying." Milk tells White there are no hard feelings over the gay vote and they can find something to work on together which can help White in his district. White tells him to sponsor a pay raise for Supervisors because White is struggling to support his family on what the Supervisor makes. Milk says pay raises are not a good idea politically, and White gets angry.
It's now Milk's big birthday party, with a giant caked shaped like City Hall, held in one of the glamorous rooms of the building itself. Milk gets several whipped cream pies to his face, which seems to be his birthday tradition. It's a far cry from the simple birthday he and Smith shared earlier in the film.
At the party, Jack is being extra-crazy and demands attention. Smith shows up unexpectedly and gives Milk a birthday kiss. It's his 48th birthday and Smith says he looks great, and kids him that Milk once said he'd never live to see 50, so Milk's now almost there.
White's in the building too, and Milk encounters him in the hall. White's beyond drunk, borderline incoherent, and rails at Milk about that psychiatric hospital some more, and also about the dog ordinance too. Jack then comes at Milk from the other side, also crazy and incoherent, so Milk brushes White off, and White just SEETHES.
The California campaign for Prop-6 becomes the center of national attention as Bryant and her forces focus all of their efforts on getting it passed.
Milk rides a float in the San Francisco Pride Parade, and gets a death threat moments before he is to give a speech on the steps of City Hall with Mayor Moscone. The whole nation is watching, so Milk says he has to go on, even though the note he got said he would be shot as soon as he took the microphone.
"My name is Harvey Milk and I am here to recruit you!". He urges the crowd to tell everyone they know to come out of the closet and break down all the myths about gay people, get rid of all the barriers, lies, and distortions.
White's at City Hall, too, talking to reporters, telling them naked men should not be allowed in the Pride Parade because naked people aren't allowed in any other parade the city has.
Milk receives word the villainous Briggs is headed to San Francisco to disrupt the parade, and the Mayor wants Milk to intercept him, so Moscone orders the police to divert his car and bring it to the docks where Milk and the media could wait. The Mayor tells Briggs his presence at Pride would lead to a public safety hazard as people would riot, so he was refusing Briggs entry into the City. Milk tries to shake Briggs' hand, but Briggs refuses. Milk asks for a public debate with Briggs on Prop-6 in San Francisco. Briggs is forced to accept because of the media's presence and Milk's persistent goading.
The debate's in the Walnut Creek School District. Briggs once more talks about gay teachers recruiting students to become new gays as the older gays die out, and if this didn't happen, then there would be no more gays. Milk asks how teachers recruit children, and if they teach gayness the way they teach French. He also notesif students emulated their teachers and grew up to be just like them, there would be a lot more nuns in this world.
Milk's goal with Prop-6 was to organize so well if they lost, "all Hell would break loose". Milk wanted another debate on Prop-6 in Orange County, California (heavily Republican area). There, Briggs equates homosexuality with child molestation, though Milk points out the majority of child molesters are straight. Milk also asks, in Briggs' attacks on teachers, how many lives Briggs will destroy in his own quest for power. The Orange County audience boos Milk repeatedly.
Jack is at his craziest, calling Milk at City Hall repeatedly and pulling him out of meetings. Milk says he will be home at 6:15 that night, and Jack says he better be home at 6:15.
The news tells us even Ronald Reagan has come out AGAINST Prop-6, because it's just plain wrong.
Dan White feels humiliated and betrayed by Milk and begins constant brooding.
Milk returns home, and finds Jack has nearly papered all the walls with crazy notes, saying things like, "It's all about you, honey" leading up to a note on a curtain that says, "How do you like my last act?". Behind the curtain, Milk sees Jack has hanged himself. He's dead, and Milk pulls him down, crying and cradling him in his arms.
Smith comforts Milk, but Milk can't grieve because there is too much to do.
President Carter comes out against Prop-6, meaning both Democrats and Republican leaders like Reagan are against it. In San Francisco, there's strong worry if Prop-6 passes, there will be riots.
The news notes the anti-gay movement of the late 1970s was the first time the Christian community organized as a political force and flexed its muscle.
Paul, the boy from Minnesota who wanted to kill himself a few years before, calls Milk the night of the Prop-6 vote. Milk is shocked, because he thought Paul was dead after he hung up the phone years ago. Paul, it turns out, came to LA and met one of Milk's friends, who was running a campaign office in LA. Paul tells Milk LA County is voting AGAINST Prop-6 by huge margins, and that means Prop-6 will fail.
It's a big win for Milk and the LGBT community. 65% of LA County voted against Prop-6. Milk's staff colors in the map to show the counties that voted against Prop-6 and they realize the effort will indeed fail. Briggs and Prop-6 went down by the 2:1 margin Milk had predicted earlier.
In San Francisco, the only district for vote FOR Prop-6 was Dan White's.
Milk tells people in California it is clear they all know a gay person, and this is a victory and a comfort for everyone in the world.
Dan White resigns from the Supervisor's Board, and is immediately dragged into a closed door meeting with the police union, who wants him to recant his resignation.
This leads to a battle where Milk pressures Mayor Moscone to not allow White to recant his resignation, because the police are old enemies of gays and once someone resigns, he resigns, and there are no do-overs. Moscone tells Milk he's acting like Boss Tweed or Mayor Daley in Chicago (which got a HUGE LAUGH in our Chicago theater audience, because both Mayors Daley have been demanding tyrant mayors). Milk tells Moscone, "A homosexual with power is a scary thing".
Milk goes to the opera and watches an elaborate death scene.
White's at home and the phone rings. He's been trying to recant his resignation, and a reporter informs him the Mayor has decided White will not get his job back, and that the Mayor will be appointing someone else the new Supervisor.
Milk calls Smith and they talk through the night, into the sunrise. Milk talks about the opera, and Smith tells him that next time he goes, Smith wants to go with him. Smith tells Milk he's proud of him. Milk, who clearly loves Smith, and realizes Smith is, in fact, the great love of his life, tells Smith "I don't want to miss this", meaning he does not want to miss Smith anymore and wants to be back with him.
White breaks into City Hall through an office under renovation, to avoid the metal detectors.
Milk comes to work, passing through the metal detectors, and heads to his office.
White goes to see Moscone.
Milk goes to see Diane Feinstein to see if she knows who the new Supervisor will be. Feinstein tells him to stay away from White if he shows up at City Hall today, because the last thing they need is a big scene.
White takes out a gun and shoots Moscone in his office several times, then calmly walks out of the office and down the hall to Milk's office.
White walks up to Milk's office like nothing is wrong, even saying hello to people he passes. He asks to see Milk in his office, closes the door, and shoots Milk 4 times.
As he dies, the last sight Milk sees is the opera house across the street.
There's a flashback to 1970, with Milk and Smith in bed together for the first time, eating birthday cake, where Smith told Milk not to eat too much cake or he'll wind up fat, and Milk tells Smith he doesn't think he'll live to see 50.
Smith and Kronenberg head to City Hall at night for Milk's official City Memorial Service, which has maybe 5 people there. "Where is everyone?", Smith asks. Both feel Milk was cheated, more people should have come to remember him, for all that he did.
Walking towards the Castro, they realize where everyone is. For as far and wide as you can see the streets are lit with candles, in a long march to City Hall.
Milk's narration continues, as he speaks into his microphone at home narrating his letter: "I want 1000 to rise if I am assassinated, let the bullet in my brain destroy every closet door, want the movement to continue beyond meI want this to go beyond gays, into Asians, and Blacks, and Seniors, all the "Us-es" out there, all of "Us"."
He wanted all people to have hope, and to stand together whenever any of them were being persecuted.
At the end of the film, text fills us in on more details:
* 30,000 people came out to honor Milk that night with candles.
* Dan White used a "Twinkie Defense" in his trial, claiming chemicals in junk food made him unbalanced and caused him to kill Moscone and Milk. He was convicted of manslaughter and served about 5 years in prison before being released in 1984. Less than 2 years later, White committed suicide.
* "The White Night Riots" followed White's conviction for manslaughter: the worst riots San Francisco ever saw in the history of the gay movement. The next day, not a single arrest was made.
* Scott Smith died in 1995 from AIDS-related complications.
* Cleve Jones became a successful activist, and in 1987 created the Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
* Ann Kronenberg went on to hold prominent positions in government and is a mother of three.
* Other members of Milk's staff started various consulting firms and other activist groups to help the gay community.